Amit Sengupta crosses many borders – physical and metaphysical – to find poetry in dark times of the sub- continent.
If the Karachi airport had not been attacked by the jihadi terrorists, perhaps, in the last week of June this year, I would be one among some lucky journalists, writers, actors, musicians and academics from across the world, celebrating the peace process, knowledge-systems, song, poetry and prose in memory of the legendary genius, rebel, poet and writer, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Instead, there was too much smoke, gunfire and clotted blood scattered all around. There was death in the air across and beyond the airport runways. Beautiful Karachi, with the smell of the sea wind, seemed to be yet again on the violent edge, gripped by a repetitive method in the madness, almost like an undeclared war, like elsewhere in Pakistan (and not only Swat, South Waziristan and the bloody borders with Afghanistan, but, in fact, most of Pakistan). And even while we, in India, said a silent prayer for the people there, friends and strangers alike, the memory of Faiz could not be resurrected yet again to create a more beautiful, imaginative, progressive and peaceful world – at least, not as a leap of imagination. As of now, that leap seems much too far away, despite Faiz.
Truly, we are living in Right-wing retrograde reactionary religious revivalist times. Sense and sensibility seem as distant as humanism, logic and rationality. Genocides, rapes, organised barbarism as public spectacles are celebrated as classical textbook cases of machismo and greatness. Often, we all withdraw into the stasis of cathartic amnesia. Sometimes it seems, in this new normalcy, that ‘Nothing Happened’, as after the plantation massacre in One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
There was no evidence. No dead bodies. No signs or symbols of a massacre. No faces of killers. No names or identities. No eye-witnesses. Indeed, there were neither dead bodies nor killers in that massacre, nor in this one. No whispers. No writing on the wall. No coded messages. No twist-in-the-tale. No inherited folk-tales or oral traditions. In this sensational siege of the soul and sensitivity, there was not even a scream.
Not even traces of blood remained. No ordinary blood. No blood of rulers. Not even an iota of evidence remains, even as another conspiracy chapter reopens, as it does sometimes. Remember what they did to the ‘site’ of the assassination soon after Benazir Bhutto’s murder? They wiped it clean with water cannons, telecast ‘live’, for all the world to see. And no one is even asking why her father was hanged, or the brutish fate of her brothers in a manner most foul and so starkly transparent.
So what do you do if the terrorist enters the Rogue State, the ‘democratic State’, the intelligence agencies, the top brass of the Repressive State Apparatus, the fake encounter machine, the killing machines, and becomes legitimately entrenched, and pretends to provide justice for all? So what do you do when the shadow lines become blurred like hell’s twilight zones? And yet, you can clearly see the contours of Nosferatu, the vampire, not looking for love, but for blood, eternally legitimising our obsessive comfort zones across the frozen liquids of clotted blood and sectarian hate politics on the streets.
So whatever happens to the public spectacles of mass injustice, the scattered limbs of innocence, the crushed scream, like in a painting trapped in a cage?
There are moments in history when the peace process is as symbolic as a joint press statement, full of fluff, lacking content and intent. There are moments when we only share our short, shallow, brutish and nasty histories, and reject memories of liberating nostalgia, friendship, and good faith. Hope is a curse we often share in times of despair.
This is happening across the subcontinent, from India to Pakistan to Sri Lanka, Burma and Bangladesh. Perhaps Bangladesh is the only brave new world where the fundamentalists, murderers and rapists are being shown the doors of justice and given the fight they deserve on the streets. In the rest of the uncanny landscape of this neighbourhood, it’s all hunky dory, hyperbolic track-two, track-four peace process. Love is in the air. The good times are coming. The corporate ad jingle will reshape our destiny. All is well.
Next to us is the totalitarian citadel of the highest form of ruthless, advanced capitalism touted as a communist apparatus called the People’s Republic of China, where Mao’s memory is both condemned and embalmed, like the Long March, which, it seems, never happened. Did it happen?
We are lucky to be living in exclusive times of history where the past seems to be forever dead and only the ad-jingle of the consumer society remains as prophetic truth selling us oneprofit dream or another. In this simulated affluent society of the few, the more you have, the less you are; the rich are perpetually having a ball, the poor can go be damned. In neo-Nazi, neo-liberal India, we have erected the dream sequence of a camouflaged, corporate, electoral democracy. We are so stunningly happy, bubbling with optimism and joy. We, ‘aspirational India’, will become better than China in 2020, 2030, 2040, 2050. China? Are we sure? So what happens if the dream turns into a totalitarian nightmare and democracy gets hanged?
We are living in the hellfire of democratic normalcy, overground and underground, sometimes so stark, like eliminated memories of limbs scattered on the streets – eyes, fingers, hair, backpacks, slow inner-lanes of brittle blood, saline tears, media reports. Sometimes, we don’t even hear the sound of fake encounters. Often, we refuse to hear poetry, or stories of enlightenment. Not even Faiz or Tagore, Sahir or Nazrul. Sometimes it is just simmering in the next corner across the shady ally, in the political subconscious of muscular, patriotic republicanism, across the thresholds of compulsive insomnia and drugged sleep, from one black hole to another, forever open and shut case, like a windowless room of a prison without a courtyard. There are no birds or bird sounds in this courtyard. There is only peace, eternal, like waiting for death.
It was no peace of the graveyard that we were chasing. This was the prison where Faiz and Habib Jalib, among others, were imprisoned by the dictator Zia; this was the peace of injustice, camouflaged as normalcy. Perhaps this is the most terrible, ghastly and dangerous of all forms of peace, when daily barbarism lingers in the tangible architecture of daily life, and in the dark, dingy, deflowered intestines of the stomach and the mind, in forever imprisonment, like the public consciousness of un-freedom pretending to be freedom.
In contemporary ‘democratic’ Pakistan, suffering runs like an infinite half-marathon. There seems no time to pause. More people have died in Pakistan because of terrorist attacks than we can imagine; we don’t even fully report it in India despite the geographical proximity and the symbolic handshakes and sugary rhetoric. Ask the people of Swat. Ask the school girls who were shot or had their schools burnt and bombed out. Ask the locals how the fanatics hanged a school teacher in the public square because his salwar was a bit too long. Ask the polio vaccine administrators and other health workers who are branded as foreign agents and eliminated as if they are the biggest threats in a poverty-stricken society with stunningly abysmal health infrastructure.
Check out the fabulous, famous Sufi dargahs of eternal– and egalitarian – ecstacy, agony, and catharsis, who are bombed and targeted routinely by the Wahabi jihadis, scattering the limbs and voices of ancient songs and epic narratives into a bloody jumble of death and disaster. Check out crossroads, street corners, public spaces, homes and media offices.
What happened to the brotherhood of man? Peace and harmony? Love for humanity? Nothing Happened?
For Pakistan, it is the apocalypse. And it is all coming back, like a bad dream in a fast-forward-and-rewind loop. It is the ordinary people, as usual, who are suffering. But who will write about their suffering?
Like a thread that weaves across from the Middle-East, across occupied Palestine, and in the manufactured revolutions of the Arab Spring, across the hundreds of thousands killed in civil wars and West-sponsored wars from ravaged Iraq to Syria to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the American and western neo-cons have yet again succeeded in translating their diabolical blueprint into the mobile map of the world. Behind every constructed insurgency, every refugee camp teeming with thousands of exiled and condemned (as I write this, over 200, 000 people are on the move as refugees in bombed out Pakistan), every sectarian massacre, every form of mass blood-bath, blood-letting and ethnic cleansing and genocide, you can see the smiling face of Samuel Huntington, the original prophet of George Bush, Tony Blair and their xenophobic, cold-blooded neo-cons. After CIA-backed Osama bin Laden, and the CIA-trained Taliban, and the CIA-sponsored madarsas, now, the spectre of another revelation looms large: the possibility that the ISIL in Iraq too were initially trained by the CIA. And even while acknowledging that Bashar-al Assad is no democrat or humanist, every non-partisan journalist worth his salt would know that the Free Syrian Army backed by the NATO and western forces, equally combined an octopus like network of Al Qaida and Wahabi jihadis.
Clash of civilisations? You can yet again see the same smiling face and the celebration of a counter-thesis. So what if the bloody landscape has been ravaged and mass death and infinite tragedy stalks the land? So what if there is no place to bury the dead?
Hence, if State-sponsored terrorism and fundamentalism breed a million headed hydra of suicide-bombers and creatures of hate politics transformed from young boys manipulated by fanatic doctrines, can the peace process also do the same?
Can the Berlin Walls across actual or imagined lines of control and barbed wire fences be broken to open the way to reconciliation, harmony and love?
Can a great emotion woven with a great vision liberate our windowless rooms into an infinite landscape of beauty, as in the original, sublime, Swat Valley; or, as in the fluid fiction of Khaled Hossaini when the Bamiyan Buddhas stood so tall and dignified at Kandahar’s imagined homeland?
Can we look into each other’s eyes and say with lucid certitude that there is no injustice or hate politics in our land, no hunger, no mass tragedy and no oppression; that we have never raped and hanged girls on trees; that we have never killed our own citizens in cold blood celebrating ethnic cleansing?
Or, are we left with nothing else in this scorching, breathless, soulless, heartless summer, except a thousand splendid suns?
If memory fails us and all we look for hope, then this hope is cursed. If we refuse to believe in hope and people-to-people narratives of inner longings and humanity, then our patriotism is cursed. If we don’t resurrect the shared stories of warmth, resilience and love from across the borders, the politics of insanity and toward pluralism and trust, then we are fated to rewrite the history of Hiroshima and Auschwitz, in our own minds, again and again.
“There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” wrote Walter Benjamin. Can’t we, likewise, in these bleak times of real fascism, artificial prosperity, and pseudo-utopian ad-jingles, rewrite another document of civilisation? Can’t we write a document which, for instance, truly celebrates a landscape where normalcy is built of justice, truth, peace, good faith, rationality and tolerance?
Will there be poetry in dark times? Yes, but only when the mind is without fear and dissent is not crushed; when fundamentalism and injustice do not become the adrenaline of the Nation State; when we care to look – between the Indo-Pak barbed wires of shared nostalgia and tragedy – for that flickering light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. In that sense, from Faiz to Tagore, the dark was never dark, the prison was never the prison, the hate was never the hate, the blood was never the blood, the border was never the borderline.
We could look to Tagore’s immortal words:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
And we could, perhaps, take heart and learn to hope that, indeed, Nothing Happened. The light never died.